Distinctive dysfunction in ‘Life During Wartime’ 

Todd Solondz makes harsh, bleak, fearlessly cynical, perversely funny and not entirely unaffecting comedies that depict horrible things people do to each other and the askew ways in which casualties and perpetrators alike continue to tick (and sometimes call it quits) post-infliction.

“Life During Wartime,” his latest release, continues that track. While weaker than “Happiness,” to which it is a semi-sequel, the movie affirms Solondz’s status as a sentimentalist’s nightmare and a solid, distinctive talent.

You don’t need to have seen 1998’s “Happiness” to appreciate this dysfunction tapestry in which Solondz revisits the old characters via different actors.

The primary setting has become Florida’s Jewish community, a suburbia that, through Solondz’s lens, proves as pathology-conducive as the prior film’s New Jersey.

Plot lines involve three sisters. Atmospheric conditions contain a haze of post-trauma stemming from betrayal and other blows of the parental and spousal variety.

Meek, bohemian Joy (Shirley Henderson) is still joyless and is now married to Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), the dirty phone caller. In the wickedly funny opening passage, Allen reveals he’s relapsed.

Shaken, Joy leaves New Jersey for Florida. In surreal episodes, she’s pursued by the ghost of ex-suitor Andy (Paul Reubens).

Medicated, bourgeois Trish (Allison Janney) is dating refreshingly ordinary Harvey Weiner (Michael Lerner) and seeking normalcy a decade after husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds) was found to be drugging and raping preteens.

The past also haunts Trish’s bar mitzvah-bound son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who learns that his father, who Trish said was dead, is a pedophile.

Fresh-out-of-jail Bill oozes self-loathing while struggling to reconnect with older son Billy (Chris Marquette), now in college.

 The film doesn’t sting as deeply as “Happiness” or Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Its plot threads sometimes seem unconnected to any emotional core.

Yet, this is a consistently amusing and uniquely original movie that, while hardly a humanist gold mine, contains more genuine feeling in a single scene than probably exists in an entire season of Hollywood romantic comedies.

Timmy’s outcry regarding the desire for a father contains impressive tragedy, for starters.

The cast, which also includes Charlotte Rampling in a sizzling cameo as a brutally astute woman Bill meets at a bar, proves an effective collective conduit for Solondz’s take on things.

Life During Wartime: 3 stars

Starring Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Michael Lerner, Ciaran Hinds
Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Not rated
Running time 1 hour 37 minutes

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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